Jaren Johnston at 30A Festival: “Make Them Come to You”

Jaren Johnston is particularly inspired at the beach. As founder and frontman of the Cadillac Three, Johnston has established himself as a rock star. But behind the rugged facade is the heart of a songwriter who’s penned tracks ranging from Keith Urban’s Southern rock-influenced hit “You Gonna Fly” to Tim McGraw’s heartfelt Grammy-nominated “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s.”

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As the son of the late Jerry Ray Johnston, drummer for country band Bandana and songwriter, Johnston was steeped in the music and songwriting scene growing up in Nashville. During the 14th annual 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida, American Songwriter chatted with Johnston after he performed a round with fellow hit writers Corey Crowder and Frank Rogers and rising country star Rachel Wammack. Johnston discussed his songwriting process, the songs that mean the most and the valuable lessons he’s learned in the writing room.

American Songwriter: Does a festival like this inspire you to write more songs? Have you written songs here?

Johnston: Me and Corey [Crowder], everybody I was up there with today, we write all the time. But a lot of times down here they’ll come over to the house. We’ve got David Ryan Harris, Jeffrey Steele, all these people in one place whereas most of time in Nashville, even though I live there, I’m on the road all the time. I don’t get to see these people in one spot. So it’s like, “Hey, what are you doing?” or we’ll be at a bar later tonight and I guarantee you tomorrow at 10 a.m. somebody will be at my house and it’s gonna be a rock star or a rock star songwriter and we will write a song that you will probably hear at this festival next year. So that’s really cool.

I think that’s one thing that all these people coming here who are songwriters, whoever’s organizing bringing all these people in one place, in the back of their minds [they’re thinking], “I hope some of these people get together and create some magic down at the beach.” Because out here is magic. It’s a whole different vibe than writing in Nashville. It’s very cool.

AS: When was the moment you felt you were a songwriter, or you could say you’re a songwriter?

Johnston: I grew up playing drums and I did that for hire for a long time. And then my dad said, “You can make a living playing drums. But if you really want to do something substantial, monetarily speaking, start writing songs. “So when I was probably 19, 20, 21, those years was when I started messing with it. I’ve been playing guitar since 13. But then [around] 2004, 2005, I got my first publishing deal and that’s when I was put in rooms with people like Frank Rogers, the people that showed me this equation [is] how a country song is written, [how] to play the game. I learned that and at the same time, I was trying to be as left, as different. Somebody’s going this way, I’m going that way.

I think that’s kind of why my career took off in the songwriting side…and the band side too because I was trying to do something that nobody else was doing, but still being accessible. Still being ear-friendly, but you’re hearing chords that you haven’t heard before on country music radio. I think that’s why people gravitated toward my songs like Keith Urban. My first No. 1 with Keith was “You Gonna Fly,” which is a Southern rock song.

AS: Is there one song of yours that holds more meaning now than when you first wrote it?

Johnston: “Raise  ‘Em Up” and “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” those are super special to me because [when] you get older, I’m 42, I got a five-year-old now. “Raise ‘Em Up,” when I get to the bridge of that when you talk about raising your kids, some nights, depending on how much I’ve had to drink, you get to that point and I start thinking about Jude, my son. So that’s huge.

When I wrote “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” I still had a memaw, my dad’s mom was still alive, my dad was still alive. … And so you start seeing those things where you’re like, “Shit this is really starting to [get] crazy.” Now my mom’s mom died. Dad bought that house from his mom and they have it down in Louisiana. So when they go to Louisiana, they stay at memaw’s house. It starts to hit a little harder after you’ve gone through all those things.

AS: How did you break into the songwriting community? What what early tips did you receive?

Johnston: My dad used to pitch songs on the side. He worked for John Michael Montgomery’s company pitching songs. I was probably 8, 9, 10, it was right around there, and he’d come home so excited because he got a hold. A hold means the publisher [says], “You know what, I like this. I’m going to play it for Clint Black’s manager” and we’d be so excited. Hold doesn’t mean shit, but you have to have the hold to get the cuts. That’s the first step and it’s very exciting.

It’s just one of those things that I saw growing up. So when I started writing at a publishing company…and they made me co-pub, which means they gave me $35,000 a year to write 10 songs a year. At 25 years old with no money, back then, I thought I was fucking rich. But it’s funny about looking back on that shit is you jump into this thing and they start pairing you up and so you do your best to write as hard as you can, learn something from every co-writer that you’re writing with, whether it’s something to do or not to do. Steal something from everybody. That’s what I did for a long time.

AS: What is something you learned in a writing session? What is something you learned not to do?

Johnston: Not to do is don’t speak. Basically, don’t speak when not spoken to. Know when it’s your time. Know your strength in the room and know everybody else’s strength. If you’re in a room with Tony Lane, I’m not gonna start the session. I’m going to be like, “Tony, what are you thinking?” because he’s fucking brilliant. I see where he wants to go, and if it’s a melodic thing or chords, instead of just jumping in [I say], “Tony, what do you think?”

You got Jonathan Singleton in the room, you’re not gonna go melody. “Jonathan, what would you do?” …And then don’t jump on the first title because everybody’s in there going, “I got this. I got ‘Summer Days and Hot Nights’…” is this worth chasing or should we should we dig a little deeper? What are we doing here? There’s nothing worse [then] getting to spend six hours on a song and then four hours on the demo and not being fulfilled, not being happy about the time that you wasted away from your family. There’s nothing worse than that because if you know it’s a stinker and you’re like, “Damn, I could’ve been hanging with Jude,” that’s a lesson I’ve learned. It takes a long time to figure out that. You got to step away and be like, “What are we doing? We’re in here for a reason to write some magic and I’m trying to make money to pay everything off. Pay for this guitar that I’m writing this song on.” That’s what I’ve learned.

AS: What do you love most about songwriting? Why do you wake up every day and continue to do it?

Johnston: There’s no rules and nobody says that. Most people stick to this thing, especially in Nashville. It’s the reason I write like I write and the reason I started the Cadillac Three is I’m so fucking sick of…if you’re gonna do a day job, go get a day job. I’ve always been somebody that’s like, “Don’t tell me how to do anything. I’m gonna do it how I want to do it.” … Let’s get weird. There’s a reason Dave Matthews Band is one of the biggest bands in the world. It’s because he played like fire. He didn’t give a shit at all about what people thought of him. So if you live like that as far as songwriting goes, people will come to you. Don’t go to them, make them come to you.

Annie Reuter contributed to this story. This interview has been edited for clarity.

(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

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